December 1, 2012
The goal of this paper is to conduct a series of research on curse words, their meanings, and a brief history of profanity. I also intend to show that curse words are deemed acceptable in certain social situations in the American culture. To begin we must define semantic. Semantics is a branch of linguistics that deals with the study of meaning, changes in meaning, and the principles that govern the relationship between sentences or words and their meanings (Weinreich, Labov, & Weinreich, (1980). It can also be referred to as the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. But presently, does the meaning of the curse word matter anymore or is it the way we portray these bad words in a specific social situation? Ambiguity and Curse Words
Currently there is no exact theory to explain why humans curse or why we chose the words we use to define these curse words. Psychologists, linguists, speech pathologists and a number of other researchers have been pondering on such an explanation for some time. According to Jay, (2000), cursing is an essential element of language in linguistics and psycholinguistics that refers to multiple uses of offensive speech. The term cursing is subjected to many ambiguous words such as swearing, obscenity, name calling, insulting, ethnic-racial slurs, vulgarity and slang, (Jay, 2000). These terms will be used interchangeably throughout the paper.
Thanks to research conducted by Timothy Jay in 1992, it was quite simple to distinguish between the use of cursing and its many ambiguous terms. For starters, cursing is more than name calling. In fact, to curse is to call upon divine or supernatural power in order to cause harm to another, (Jay, 2000). The intent behind cursing is to cause physical harm on another through the use of words and phrases. Most Americans use cursing in short phrases, out of anger and frustration to get their point across with strong emphasis of the portrayed emotion, (Jay, 2000).
Swearing is the use of any word or phrase that is likely to cause offense when used in middle class polite conversation (McEnery, 2005). Swearing originally meant to take an oath legally or religiously until a second meaning allowed the term to take on the use of offensive language (Hughes, 2006). Initially, swearing seemed to induce positivity in sentences as it replaced violent actions as a means of expressing anger (Jay, 1992) and still considered to be a synonym to the closely related word curse.
To the American culture, obscenity is viewed as sexual in nature (Jay, 1992). Obscene language may consist of words such as “fuck” “cunt,” or “motherfucker.” According to Jay (1992), to label a word as obscene is technically restricting that word to free speech. This means such a word cannot be used freely and can be subjected to restrictions or punishment from the head governing body. It is the American culture which gives obscene words the relation to sexual content and imagery. For this reason, courts deem obscenity as offensive and not to be freely uttered, especially in the media, books, and other forms of public entertainment (Jay, 1992). Written in The Mother Tongue, English and How it Got That Way (Bryson, 1996), it is mandatory that a film or motion picture be rated R using certain explicit words. The Federal Communications Commission, (FCC), attempted to exclude seven bad words from broadcast television; these consisted of “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits,” (Sapolsky and Kaye, 2005). Even though Americans can be intolerant of swearing, some swearing does occur on U.S. television (Sapolsky and Kaye, 2005) such as South Park (Grimm, 2003). Producing several successful seasons, South Park used milder bad words like, “hell,” “ass,” “screw you,” “bitch,” bastard”, and “son-of-bitch,” for example...
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